No one showed up Monday to speak against Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s proposal to expand the University of Connecticut’s John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington, but many remained cautious about the $352 million plan.
“Where did this plan come from?” Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, asked the University of Connecticut’s Board of Trustees, during a public hearing on the proposal.
Thomas Ritter, vice-chair of the UConn Board of Trustees, told Willis that when Larry McHugh took over as chairman of the board he instructed them to get involved and find out why the university has been unable to get similar proposals to expand the hospital passed by the legislature. He said board members then went out into the community and asked all the stakeholders, including the five area hospitals to find out where there was common ground.
He described the current plan, which calls for increasing the number of beds at John Dempsey, increasing classroom and lab space for both the medical and dental schools, and construction of a state-of-the-art cancer center, a “big pot of stew.”
“It’s everybody’s and it’s nobody’s at this point,“ University of Connecticut President Michael Hogan said describing the ownership of the ideas in the plan.
“How did you get buy in from area hospitals?” Willis asked.
The number one concern of area hospitals was the use of taxpayer money to subsidize a facility in Farmington that would compete with them, Ritter said.
“My concern is that we didn’t arrive at this as a political solution,” Willis said.
Ritter said this is a solution that’s best for the region.
Proponents of the plan say it will create 5,000 jobs and expand the bioscience and medical industries in the Greater Hartford area.
But Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester, wanted to know how the university expects to get the state to create an enterprise zone for the hospital. The enterprise zone would offer state tax breaks to private companies that create jobs and work with UConn Health Network.
Handley said an enterprise zone, which will cost an estimated $12 million, hasn’t been created in years.
UConn’s Chief Financial Officer Richard Gray said the nuances are still being worked out and it’s unclear where the boundaries of the zone would be drawn. He said the university has agreed to defer certain UConn 21st Century bond funds to help move the project along. He said the trustees are sensitive to the level of debt service paid by the state.
In order to make this proposal work the state will already have to go back and pair down about $227 million in bond authorizations already earmarked for previous projects. A monumental task for lawmakers.
Gray said the university is sensitive to the bond authorizations.
The largest union at the hospital was also cautiously optimistic about the plan.
Jean Morningstar, president of the University Health Professionals, told the committee Monday that their optimism comes from the promise John Dempsey would remain a public hospital governed by the state.
However, the group is wary of the transfer of 40 neonatal intensive care unit beds to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. She said the transfer of those beds give CCMC “a virtual monopoly of the NICU beds in the area.” She said she’s concerned about this because it would give them control of insurance rates because virtually all these beds would be controlled by CCMC and Yale.
Dr. Cato Laurencin, vice president for health affairs at the University of Connecticut, said the concept is to regionalize pediatric care. He said he doesn’t think the transfer of those beds would happen before the final plan is given legislative approval.
But even if the plan gets legislative approval it’s still contingent on $100 million in funding from the federal government.
The funding, which was part of the center of controversy when the plan was released, is part of the health care reform bill making its way through Congress.
In a conference call Monday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd scoffed at the notion that it was an earmark in the bill for the state of Connecticut. He said it’s a competitive grant which 13 to 14 states with public hospitals will have to compete for.
“This is not Connecticut specific,” Dodd said. “We’re interested. You’re darn right we’re interested, but along with a bunch of other states.”
He said passage of the bill is up to the House.
According to the Associated Press, Political Strategist David Axelrod indicated Sunday that the White House was backing down on an attempt to get senators to eliminate special deals included in earlier legislation.
Axelrod said the White House only objects to state-specific arrangements, but those that apply to more than one state are OK.